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Sacked for not publishing enough

The Nature News Blog has reported today that around 100 academics from the University of Sydney have been sacked because “they hadn’t published at least four “research outputs” over the past three years’. It seems that the staff had been warned that there was a publication level that they had to meet in order to keep their jobs, but that this was lower that the four within three years that ultimately they were judged on. In some ways this might seem reasonable – that if academics are not publishing, one has to question why they continue in post. This has resonances with the Research Excellence Framework exercise in the UK, where it has almost become untenable to support research that is not deemed sufficiently good enough, or which does not have enough ‘impact’.

The problem is, of course, that reasons for not producing good work are highly variable. It could be that you’re on the brink of some big breakthrough and the focus of this has taken many years to complete. It may be that you’ve had bad luck with papers getting accepted, or have been doing good work, but maybe aiming to high up the journal league table. It could be that you have had a run of poor luck on grant funding, and have not had the support to do your work and write up results, in terms of PhD students, postdocs, or simply a lack of equipment. Maybe a series of experiments didn’t work, but the next one will (and it will win a Nobel Prize). Maybe your research output is highly subjective (think works by artists) and the critics didn’t like your last show. Maybe your research rivals knew about your employment conditions and decided to reject your last paper (to make it to the magic four) to get you sacked. Or maybe, just maybe you didn’t feel the need to publish every last little bit of work to avoid saturating the journals and keep the overall quality of published work high enough to make it bearable to read them. Maybe you published one Nature paper a year over the last three years and nothing else, and they each got 500 citations. Sounds like that might not have been good enough.

These are just a few reasons you might not publish four papers or make four things in three years (any more?). If this report is true and this was the sole condition for dismissal, then shame on the University of Sydney, but maybe it’s a wake up call to the rest of us – coming to a department near you soon. Right, back to writing my next grant next paper.

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